Originally Published by the Ventura County Reporter
Mohamed, a recently married Iraqi friend who works in the hotel where we stay in Baghdad, is expecting a child soon. Shortly before we left nearly three weeks ago, he approached some members of our seven-member peace delegation with troubling information about his wife’s pregnancy. She will need a Cesarean section—unfortunately, on his salary, Mohamed cannot afford the operation.
Our team feels helpless listening to Mohamed’s story amid the millions of others like it in Iraq. Even so, it isn’t wise for us to get a reputation as problem-solvers. We do what we can, but working against the United Nations-imposed economic sanctions on Iraq can often be overwhelming.
This Iraqi clasroom may soon gain over one-third new capacity. More than 35 percent of girls drop out of primary school due to the need to help support their families.
As a woman visiting Iraq, I often have entrance into particular social situations unfamiliar to men, like holding hands or sitting next to mothers at the hospitals that tend their sick children. I grow particularly empathetic as I imagine myself in their shoes. I know the rage I feel here in the United States toward misguided economic policies meant to target Saddam Hussein but that directly affect the most vulnerable people in society: the women and children.
In Iraq, life for women (especially mothers) was much better prior to the United Nations sanctions, imposed in August of 1990. From 1975 to 1985, the Iraqi government invested large amounts of money in social programs, such as education and health care. A program to eradicate illiteracy among Iraqi women was exceedingly successful, and women have traditionally enjoyed freedoms not found in other contemporary Arab and Muslim countries.
In an Oct. 1 New York Times article, Nicholas Kristof reported on the liberal attitudes toward women in Iraq. He wrote that women routinely serve in non-combat positions in the military. They pray, dine and swim together with men. Girls compete in sports as often as boys do.
Compare these tremendous opportunities with those in neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia, where repressive attitudes cloister women from public life into sometimes dangerous situations. In March, a group of Saudi girls was incinerated, having been denied exit from a burning building because they were not covered by a hijab, or head scarf.
Although more openminded in its attitudes, Iraq has become decidedly more dangerous for women and children since the Gulf War due to the breakdown in medical care and especially in preventive medicine. Mohamed’s wife knows this predicament all too well.
In Basra, where much of the Gulf War fighting transpired, 25 of the 26 obstetrics and gynecology students are women. During my first visit to Iraq in August 2001, however, I spoke with a physician at the Basra Pediatric Hospital who said that 90 percent of the women in Southern Iraq suffered from severe anemia, a health indicator with serious implications for women and children.
Severely anemic nursing mothers cannot provide their babies adequate nutrition. Thus, even breastfeeding has become problematic during the past 12 years of economic sanctions.
A UNICEF document from April of this year states that many Iraqi mothers have stopped breastfeeding and that only 17 percent breastfeed during their baby’s first four months. Under the Oil for Food Programme of 1995, a food basket handout for Iraqi families contains powdered formula that mothers increasingly use.
This is problematic for many reasons, among them that the formula requires water for preparation. Nearly 62 percent of women said they report giving their babies water in the first month of life, and nearly 32 percent of the children drink unboiled water—but the water in Iraq is severely contaminated. Many of the water purification, sewage treatment and electrical facilities were bombed during the Gulf War and remain largely unrepaired and are functioning at minimal capacity for a growing nation of 24 million.
Last fall, Thomas Nagy, a Washington, D.C. professor, released a study called The Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq’s Water Supply. In this paper, he details information in government documents from 1991 about how the Gulf War strategy included destroying Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, which violates Geneva Convention articles.
“It notes,” Nagy reported, “that Iraq’s rivers ‘contain biological materials [and] pollutants and are laden with bacteria. Unless the water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis and typhoid could occur.’ Iraq will suffer increasing shortages of purified water because of the lack of required chemicals and desalination membranes. Incidences of disease, including possible epidemics, will become probable unless the population were careful to boil water.”
Currently, the killer of children in Iraq is gastroenteritis, caused by drinking contaminated water. One in eight children do not see their first birthdays. Imagine the helplessness of being a mother in Iraq, knowing what life was like before the Gulf War and before economic sanctions, wanting nothing more than to be a good mother and provide a healthy, nutritious, safe life for her children.
In a meeting with the chief medical officer at the Basra Pediatric Hospital, I inquired about the status of preventive health care for women in Iraq. His response was that there is none. This is quite remarkable for Iraq, which until 1990 had eradicated all childhood illnesses and had the most comprehensive health care system in the Middle East.
While abysmally lacking resources and training programs, the medical field is nowhere as bleak as the education climate in Iraq, especially for young girls. More than 35 percent of girls drop out before the end of primary school due to the high price of school supplies and the need to help supplement the family’s income by going to work, likely begging.
It seems we are condemning the women and children of Iraq to a fate similar to that of the 25 percent of American children who live in poverty, the 45 million people without health insurance and the 30,000 homeless in New York City alone.
“Conflict is the last thing people in Iraq need,” UNICEF in Iraq reports. And when our group inquired about the potential effects of President Bush’s growing military campaign, an official at the World Food Programme office in Baghdad sighed: “The poorest people in Iraq will suffer the most.”
*Leah C. Wells, a Santa Paula teacher, serves as peace education coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara. She recently paid a second visit to Iraq and opposes the economic sanctions and no-fly-zone incursions on that country.